The Association for Qualitative Research
The Hub of Qualitative Thinking

Death of the big ad idea?

Tash Walker asks whether more collaborative all agency teams, insight driven storytelling and fewer channel-driven campaigns means a new key role for qual.

In the good old days of advertising you had two types of agencies: those that did TV well and print badly, and vice versa. Clients would pay a large amount of money and go to the agency that was best at producing ads that fitted the channel they most preferred their brand to be seen on.

As marketing has grown up around our clients and their ad agencies, a firm hierarchy tended to ensure that advertising was always the most important cornerstone of every marketing campaign. Ideas always started in advertising, and agencies from other disciplines were handed these and asked to make them work in PR, branding or, more recently, for digital media. In the world of research we waited at the door of the marketing chambers, and were given things to test when it was felt appropriate but never fully ushered into the proceedings.

Burden shift

Times have changed, though. Recession or not, clients are looking for better value for money from their agency partners. The burden of coming up with "the big idea" is now increasingly falling to collaborative all agency teams, rather than just one of the big-gun ad agencies.

In an all agency meeting, clients are looking for partners who are informed not just about the brand's current consumers and objectives, but who are also able to use that knowledge to fulfill its future ambitions. In other words, can quallies use the knowledge they have gained and make real use of this in a future context?

The benefit of this arrangement for any agency is that you get to be centre stage in the creation of marketing strategies. This is a rare opportunity for quallies to ensure that consumer insight not only informs this process but is also central to the creative process. As for clients, they get campaigns that are truly integrated and more likely to succeed because they are insight driven.

So the benefits are clear, but from a qualitative research perspective are there people out there ready and capable of filling this role?

To stand out in an all-agency session among the heavyweight planners from advertising, branding and PR means talking their talk and communicating in a convincing way, but who is really doing this? Is there a new breed of quallie out there? One which benefits from an alternative background and communicates insight in a way that agency partners find hard to resist?

The skill you would most likely find among this set is the ability to recognise that communicating consumer insight relies less on your ability to appraise your multidiscipline agency partners of the facts, and more on your ability to create an engaging narrative and allow them to experience it for themselves. The rise of film techniques and visual planning within qual research is evidence enough of this. Qualitative research then, is rightly borrowing skills from some of its more creative agency partners.

A new tranche of agencies

Taking this a step further, there is even a new tranche of agencies capturing the zeitgeist and creating an entirely hybrid approach by incorporating both insight and storytelling in a way that clients find hard to resist. This approach cuts out the middleman altogether, with agencies doing their own qual research and uncovering insight themselves.

Agencies such as Aesop, founded in 2011, have the mantra "because stories build belief, belief builds brands, and brands build business". This mantra stems from its multi-disciplinary nature, its commitment to putting ideas before channels, and stories before executions. By conducting its own research and building this into its creative approach from the start, its campaigns are well grounded in bringing to life a story in a compelling way for consumers.

This goes both ways too. Within advertising, planners such as Martin Weigel from W&K Amsterdam talk about the graft required in making a great planner. This involves far more than simple creative inspiration: it owes a great debt to disciplines of analytics, understanding of and ability to plan, contribute to and run consumer research. So it seems the more the boundaries between disciplines blur, the more we need to learn to stay in touch.

Even ex-marketing director Phil Rumbold (responsible for the Cadbury's Gorilla campaign) has just started his own agency, 101 London, with this exact viewpoint in mind "as a collective of wise counsel and curious minds". The emphasis within this new breed is clear: stop thinking channel first, ideas second. Be open, collaborative and ultimately deliver a creative, valuable campaign that is more fully integrated and therefore relevant to consumers.

Where does this leave qual?

Where then does this leave quallies in pursuit of that seat at the all agency table? Well, you will need some key characteristics if you want to make headway and show your mettle in this tough environment. Here are a few thoughts on this topic:

  • You must be able to raise your head above the parapet and talk brands, with knowledge of some of the fundamental laws of markets and categories.

  • You must understand how different communications work effectively, to which people, at which times, and in what kind of circumstances (including different channels). If you are to contribute you must at least know how consumer insight can be applied in these guises.

  • Importantly, the only point of good consumer insight is to inform great creative briefs and marketing strategies. If you have no knowledge as to how this can be applied or what can be done to put this consumer insight to effective use, then there is no place for you at the table.

  • It is imperative you have an opinion. Brilliant creative work is not formed by committee but from belief and passion. So while within research we must be guided by what we have seen and act as the consumer's champion, it should not rob us of the ability to apply this in a future context. And for this you require good judgement and the courage of your convictions.


Tash Walker
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2012